Gray Matter

March 22, 2012

Reading Eric Kandel’s wonderful book, In Search of Memory, I recalled the marvellous little Dan Reeder ditty from his first CD:

 

The book is fascinating, and even exciting.  As the Times reviewer noted: 

If there is another book that does a better job of demonstrating how biological research is done, or of telling the story of a brilliant scientist’s career, I don’t know it. Nor do I know one that better conveys the unique excitement that drives the success of research . . . or that gives a better descriptive narrative of the historical evolution of our understanding of mind

The fact that he seems to endorse the philosophical views of my undergraduate bête noir, Thomas Nagel, is a minor point.  (I skimmed ahead to find this out.  Maybe I’ll feel differently on a full reading.)

Kandel notes that memory is of two kinds:  the type that we use consciously (Who was the first president?); and the unconscious kind, e.g. remembering how to ride a bike after not doing it for years.  This was a very important discovery in neuroscience, and it has philosophical implications.  He notes that Gilbert Ryle, in 1949, discussed the two kinds of knowledge:  knowing what, and knowing how.  I wonder… are they really so different?  As Julian Jaynes  pointed out, a lot of what passes for conscious ratiocination, e.g. logic, is not that at all.

I also enjoyed reading Kandel’s discussion of Dr. Galvani’s landmark contribution to the foundations of a science of mind.

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Weather of the Mind

September 17, 2010

I work right next door to Century 21, a fabulously popular discount department store, famous all over the world.  At one time or another, I have gone through various levels of involvement with the store.  For periods of weeks or months, I have visited it daily on my lunch hour, usually buying a few shirts, a belt, socks, or during some stretches, a different pair of shoes each week.  Now, I never go there.  The thought of walking in there bores me stiff.

What changed?  Why did it change?  Oh, you can say I just “got bored,” but why?  Is there some time-dependent mechanism involved?  Can we quantify it, at least for me?  Is it an accumulation of small things adding up to a big, final, ho hum?

Consider all the similar changes that happen over shorter time scales – a month, a week, a day…an hour?  We seem to have no control over them, we just react to them.  Or are simply aware of them.

This seems to wreak havoc with our normal ideas on the nature of the self.  Is our personal mentality simply a mental landscape over which storm fronts and high/low pressure areas shift endlessly, on their own power?  Reason seems to have a small part to play, and is present only because we have abstract language to talk about all this.

I come back to my bedrock conviction that people are more like plants than they like to think.  Free will exists, but there’s less of it than we pretend.  We are just organisms in an environment, responding and surviving.  Even our mental life, about which we are so proud, is hardly of our “own” creation.


Anyone in there?

June 21, 2010

*Is is possible to be wrong about whether or not you are in pain?
*Can a colorblind person know what the rest of humanity experiences when it sees things?
*Can we ever know what it is like to be a bat?

People generally fall into one of two camps on questions of this sort: 

  1. These questions are idiotic, a waste of time, and only really strange and intellectually eccentric people care about them.
  2. These questions are fascinating, albeit strange, and by thinking about them we can start to understand the phenomenon of mentality.

The vast majority of people is in the first camp.  For better or worse, I have always been in the second.  This is the province of the Philosophy of Mind, the discipline that seeks, or pretends to seek clarity regarding our notions of what it means to be conscious, have a mind, be a sentient, perceiving being, and not to be a machine, a robot, or a zombie.   (The latter category of being is much in vogue today, among philsophers of mind.)

I know of no better guide through this morass than Professor Daniel C. Dennett of Tufts University.  His 1991 book, Consciousness Explained is the best thing I have ever read on the topic.  His recent short book of lectures that revisits that earlier work, Sweet Dreams:  Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness is a great refresher on his ideas.  The word science is key:  Dennett is trying to use philosophy to clear away intellectual deadwood so that science may advance more rapidly.  He rejects the notion that philosophy has a primary role in formulating an explanation of consciousness, and for this he is labeled as reductionist, materialist, physicalist, mechanist, and several other more or less pejorative terms, some of which he is happy to accept, albeit with qualifications.

As a student of philosophy in college, I became disgusted with the narrowminded and dogmatic point of view that dominated the department, and I left to take a degree in art history.  One  intellectual luminary, who was my personal bête noir, Thomas Nagel, is the subject of frequent, sustained, and devastating criticism by Dennett.  Of course, I love that.  (Nagel’s essay, What is it like to be a bat? , is a “classic” in the field.)

I have seen Dennett on TV, and read opinion pieces of his in the NYTimes, and he has a tendency towards pugnacious and aggressive humor, but he has a right to it.  The people with whom he’s arguing need shaking up.  And he’s right!  At times, as when he discusses atheism, he seems a bit of a crank, but that too is probably a result of arguing with mystics who think they are scientists.  If the arguments of his critics seem, as he presents them, to be utterly ridiculous, that’s because they are.  The bigger question is why they continue to be revered as sophisticated philosophical investigators.

These books are not for those seeking an introduction to the topic, and if you are not familiar with the arcane and involved history of these questions in the philosophical literature, you will find them tough going.  Sorry, but I don’t know any books that do fit that bill.


Eugénie Grandet

February 10, 2010

This little tale from Balzac’s scenes of provincial life is one of my favorites, having a simple plot anchored by a character of monumental greed and miserliness, Old Grandet.  He has amassed a fortune in land, farms, shares, and wooden casks of gold coins that he loves to gaze upon, but he lives like a simple workman with not a centime to his name.  His good wife and lovely daughter, Eugénie, are completely dominated by his tyrannical personality.  Eugenie has never known any other life, and hardly dreams that one is possible, let alone that she is an heiress to millions.

Into this small town darkness flashes the meteoric path of Charles, Grandet’s nephew, whose father killed himself to escape the shame of bankruptcy.  Charles visits his relations in Saumur at his father’s direction, not knowing why, and learns the awful truth from his uncle.  He is a rich, spoiled, foppish dandy, but he is truly despairing when he learns of his father’s end, and he resolves to remake his fortune in the West Indies.  But first, through a few secret interviews, he and Eugénie fall in love.  To help him on his way, Eugénie gives him her entire life savings, a bag of gold coins, resolving to wait for him forever, blissfully enslaved to the only true love she has ever known.

Charles sails away, and Grandet finds out about Eugénie’s absolutely foolish, blasphemous action with her gold.  Initially, he punishes her by locking her in her room on a diet of bread and water.  The mother’s health fails, the town gossips, and the two top families scheme to get their sons married to Eugénie.  Charles grows rich trading slaves, and becomes corrupt and miserly – Eugénie is orphaned.  Charles returns to France and feels obligated to write Eugénie a “Dear Jane” letter so he can proceed to marry into a decrepit but prestigious noble family with a clear conscience.  Eugénie marries one of the sons, but insists that she remain a virgin, and lives a life of humility, austerity, and generous charity.  Her husband never gets to enjoy his wife’s wealth; he dies young.  Charles is shocked to learn that the pretty cousin he jilted, the one who lives in poverty in the country, is far more wealthy than he – he calculated wrong!

Such is the plot – another French tale of sharp provincial dealing and financial chicanery – of which Balzac is a master.  It is the character and psychology of Old Grandet that makes it an epic of obsession and sexual repression.  Grandet seems hardly human, a mass of granite, and completely devoid of feelings.  He drives hard bargains always, and only shows delight and humor when he manages a particularly crafty financial triumph.  He has a wen, a cyst or wart, on his nose that is his principle indicator of internal passion – it becomes inflamed and pulsating when he is agitated or angry.  The symbolism is obvious.

Eugénie, his daughter, is a beautiful young woman who is practically living the life of a nun, married, in bondage, to her father and his gold.  He gives her gifts of coins on special occasions, but his gifts come with strings.  He asks now and then to view the coins with her -“Go and bring your coins, girlie. Looking at them warms me up.”  His use of the diminuitive is unsettling – Eugénie is a fully grown and lovely woman.  The coins give him heat and life: money is always something supernatural in Balzac, and here it is the life-sexual force itself.    There is nothing else for Old Grandet.  Locked in his office, gazing at his barrels of gold, Grandet is like a boy ashamed of his sexual longing, hiding himself away with his favorite girlie magazines.  At one point, he exclaims: “You ought to kiss me on the eyelids for telling you the secrets and mysteries of the life and death of money.  Really, coins live and swarm like men’ they come and go and sweat and multiply.”  Such are the facts of life according to Monsieur Grandet. Swarming, multiplying, sweating…only gold lives.  It’s the only sex education Eugénie gets.

When Eugénie gives Charles her coins, he gives her a golden casket of his mother’s in return, to hold for him in trust, promising to repay her the value of her coins.  Eugénie and her mother, who sympathizes with her, delight in looking at the box, rehearsing their memories of the handsome cousin, now far away.  Upon learning of this exchange, Old Grandet leaps upon the casket “like a tiger” and begins clawing it, almost destroying it to get some goldwork that he can sell to recoup her idiotic squandering of her treasure.  Eugénie tries to stop him, shouting that the cask is neither hers nor his, it is only held in trust against Charles’ return and repayment of the  loan of her coins.  Grandet shoves her aside, hurting her, and cries, “Why were you looking at it if it was given you in trust?  Looking is worse than touching.”

Ah, yes, the looking!  His gloating over his coins has an element of sexual looking, voyeurism.  This is more explicit when, after punishing his daughter with house arrest, he fumes and walks in his garden, but can’t resist looking at her as she mournfully brushes her hair at her windowsill.  His gaze is filled with anger, love, paternal and avaricious, and sexual?  The scene made me think of this painting by Thomas Hart Benton and the story of Susanna and the Elders – young women wronged by crude, dirty old men.  When Eugénie tries to evade his requests to see her gold in order to forestall revealing what she did with it, Old Grandet wheedles:  “Listen, Eugénie, you must give me your gold.  You won’t refuse your old daddy, will you girlie, eh?” sounding like a increasingly frustrated pedophile with a recalcitrant intended victim.

Eugénie, disappointed in love, agrees to marry only to procure a service from her notary-suitor that will rescue the honor of that cad, Charles, and with the stipulation that she remain a virgin.  Her fate reminds me of Zeus impregnating Danae with a rain of golden coins – another woman done wrong by gold.


Sensation!

February 2, 2010

But though our thought seems to possess this unbounded liberty, we shall find, upon a nearer examination, that it is really confined within very narrow limits, and that all this creative power of the mind amounts to no more than the faculty of  compounding, transposing, augmenting, or diminishing the materials afforded us by the senses and experience . . . In short,  all the materials of thinking are derived either from our outward or inward sentiment: the mixture and composition of these belongs alone to the mind and will. 

 
Time was, I liked to knock the English empiricists hard, love them though I might.  Nowadays, I think they, especially Mr. David Hume, had it just right as far as the Theory of Knowledge, aka epistemology goes.  Consider this article (Abstract Thoughts?  The Body Takes Them Literally)  in the New York Times today.  It’s all about how we don’t just “think” with our brains, where all our linguistic nattering goes on, but with our bodies.  Indeed, our brains treat many abstract concepts quite concretely, as instances of physical activity, translated into linguistic metaphor. 

As Hume would say, our most abstract ideas spring, eventually, if you trace them back far enough,  from genuine physical sensations.  As the psychologist Julian Jaynes remarked in an earlier chapter of his book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

… the relation between an analog map and its land is a metaphor.

That is, just as a paper map relates to the actual terrain as a linguistic metaphor to reality, so too do our abstract ideas relate to physical reality and sensation.  (Maps are not as cut and dried as you might think, either!)  Our ideas are, in the end, analogs, a notion that would have made Plato vomit, I think.

BTW, I most certainly do not recommend Jayne’s book, although the first chapter or two are masterful descriptions of what thinking is actually, as opposed to what epistemologists like to pretend it is.  He was, however, a very creative fellow.